By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer
Just a little over a year ago, Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and this family-friendly and musically wonderful film will finally be in theaters and on demand September 11, 2020. If you’re a Reddy fan, new or old, you might want to gather your family around your TV for an on-demand self-hosted singalong.
If you’re not familiar with Reddy, you still might be familiar with her tunes, particularly the song she co-created with a fellow Aussie, Ray Burton, which has become an anthem for the women’s movement, I Am Woman. Although the song came out in 1972, in 2017 people who attended the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles were treated to Reddy singing I Am Woman a cappella after being introduced to crowd by Jamie Lee Curtis.
The Reddy story is not just an Aussie story, but also a Los Angeles story. The Australian-born singer currently lives in a Los Angeles care facility, and it was in Los Angeles that Moon met Reddy. Born in 1964 in South Korea, Moon was too young to appreciate the lyrics of the titular song, I Am Woman, which came out in 1972. Moon’s family moved from South Korea to Sydney, Australia when she was about four or five, but she has some clear memories of South Korea. She recalls being in a recording studio and in a dance group. “Your family will always make sure you remember your homeland. I traveled back to Korea a lot when I was growing up,” Moon said in a recent telephone interview.
In Australia, she recalls the effect Helen Reddy had on her mother and her mother’s friends. That was back when “the radio was a really big part of your life, but I wasn’t old enough to have gone to a Helen Reddy concert or own a record.” She remembers “sitting in the back of my parents’ Volvo station wagon” and “my mother and her friends would wind down the windows and let down their hair and sing along whenever a Helen Reddy song came on.” Her intuition was “Helen seemed to make the older women in my life that much bolder and stronger.”
The film begins in 1966. Single mother Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey with Chelsea Cullen providing the vocals) arrives in New York with her three-year-old daughter in tow and only $230 in hand. What she thought would be a job, turns out to be an audition at Mercury Records that she doesn’t pass. She stays and works nightclubs, dealing with sexism and club owners who know her non-working visa prevents her from finding better jobs or demanding more pay. Befriending Lilian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), the woman who would write Lilian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Reddy struggles until she meets and mates with Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). Wald becomes her manager and they move to Los Angeles. Wald works at Capitol Records, representing Tiny Tim. More influential and important acts like Deep Purple and Donna Summer would follow.
Reddy has to push to get a Capitol deal, a single that will be a minor hit, peaking at 13–I Don’t Know How to Love Him from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. While Reddy’s first hit got radio play due to aggressive phone campaigning, I Am Woman touched the hearts of women who called in requests to local stations. The song went to No. 1, making Reddy the first Australian singer to top the US charts.
Like Reddy, Moon came from Australia to the US, looking for a change. Beginning as a journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation after studying at the University of New South Wales, Moon left that vocation to study at the Australian Film and Television and Radio School. There she won the Kenneth B. Myer award. While at the school, she met fellow Australian Dion Beebe. Together, they came to Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute. Beebe, who won a cinematography Academy Award for the 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha, is the cinematographer for I Am Woman.
Moon graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from AFI and received the Franklin J. Schaffner Directing Award. Reddy isn’t the first singer that Moon has made a film about. Moon directed a 2012 documentary on Tony Bennett, The Zen of Bennett, which was released for the legendary singer’s 85th birthday. The documentary won Beebe a Golden Tripod from the Australian Cinematographers Society.
The genesis of I Am Woman film was a chance meeting with Reddy at a G’Day Australia event a year later during awards season. Discovering there had never been a film about Reddy’s rise from “illegal alien” to star, Moon decided to pursue Reddy’s story as her next project. During the development, Moon attended two Las Vegas concerts where she and the writer, Emma Jensen, were able to meet and talk with fans.
For Moon, the film is about “the global impact of her story, of her career” and “how she broke ground for so many women.” This is a migrant story because in the beginning, Reddy “was essentially an illegal immigrant in America” until she married Wald. “What bonded me to her story was her journey as a woman, her independence and her strength” and all of this plays out during the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Moon also able to meet with Wald who was married to Reddy from 1966 to 1983. You’ll see in the film that the Wald-Reddy divorce was acrimonious, partially a result of Wald’s drug addiction problem. According to Moon, “Since that divorce Jeff had never been to a Helen Reddy show, but the very last show was at the Catalina Club in Los Angeles.” That was in 2014. Reddy was 73 at the time and actually invited Wald. “I would like to think through the process of this movie being researched that there’s a peace that’s come between them,” Moon said.
Both Reddy and Wald have seen the film at separate screenings. Reddy saw the film before it screened in Toronto. “I wanted to show her the film before we completely locked picture,” Moon recalled. “I was actually really nervous during the screening because when the first song comes on it is Helen Reddy singing in the movie. I started to panic because I kept thinking: What if she doesn’t like it because it’s her story seen through my eyes?” Moon soon relaxed because, “She was singing along with the songs; she was laughing. She was very engaged with the movie.” When the credits rolled, Reddy read the cards aloud, but when she got to the part about the Equal Rights Amendment not passing, Moon recalls, Reddy began to cry. “She really felt the impact of the movie and the impact of her story.”
While in Australia, where it was trending at number one according to Moon, there is some contention about the film from the Aussie who wrote the music, Ray Burton, who felt erased in the movie. Reddy’s ex, Wald, however, had no problems with it. After the screening, Moon said, “I could see the tears in his eyes. He loved the film, too. He also told me when he was watching the movie at times he thought he was watching Helen on screen.” For Moon, it is now hard to imagine anyone else playing Reddy besides Cobham-Hervey. “She was really able to embrace the physicality of Helen.” Moon had worried that Cobham-Hervey, now 26, was too young because she’d have to age from 25 to 48 in the film. What helped, Moon believes, is Cobham-Hervey grew up in an unconventional family that, like Reddy’s, was in show business. Reddy’s father was a writer, producer and actor while her mother had been an actress. Cobham-Hervey performed in a youth circus troupe for seven years. “She was able to bring the spirit of who Helen is to the role,” Moon said.
After it screened in Toronto, Moon recalls, “A young girl came running up to me afterward. She said thank you. Thank you for making this film because I didn’t come because I know who Helen Reddy is. I didn’t even want to come; my mother made me come to the movie. I just love this movie and I’m so grateful I got to learn what women did before me. I’m going to go home and look up all these things.”
Even though the pandemic prevented the release of this film in many theaters and most people will likely be viewing it on demand, Moon said, “I’m really excited that we’re releasing right now at this moment in their homes” because it can be viewed as “family get-togethers. You’ll get to watch it with your mother, or if you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch it with your grandmother. You’ll get to watch it with your son.”
Moon added, “Right now there are really big choices going on in the world,” alluding to the US presidential elections. She hopes that “in some small way watching this film will inspired people and empower people, especially women.”
Since the film was released in Australia, Moon has received a lot of upbeat messages via email and social media. Someone wrote that her husband “didn’t want to watch because he thought it was a girls’ movie, but he cried more than anyone else.” Moon loves getting these messages. After you watch the film, she’d enjoy hearing from you.
On Twitter: @UnjooMoon
On Facebook: Unjoo Moon
On Instagram: Unjoo Moon
I Am Woman screened at AFI Fest in November and at the Busan International Film Festival in October of last year (2019) and will be released in theaters and on demand September 11, 2020.
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